Fall 2019


The Weight of History

Kasi Lemmons and Ed Zwick hold forth on the responsibilities that come with fact-based historical dramas, achieving authenticity and connecting the past with the present

Directors Kasi Lemmons and Ed Zwick (Photos: (L-R) Edwin TSE; Jeff Vespa/Contour By Getty Images)

Thirty years ago this December, Ed Zwick's Glory was released, shedding dramatic light on the valor of the Union Army's African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. In November, another movie that focuses on roughly the same time period, Harriet, about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, directed by Kasi Lemmons, will hit theaters. Both films deal with the horrors of slavery and the sacrifices made by largely unsung heroes in the name of freedom and equality. In a recent conversation with DGA Quarterly, Lemmons and Zwick discussed the responsibilities that come with fact-based historical drama, achieving authenticity, and connecting the past to the present. This is an edited version of their conversation.–Steve Chagollan

Director Kasi Lemmons, far left, consults with her cast on location for Harriet. (Photo: Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

Ed Zwick: For better, and I think also for worse, film drama and historical drama are becoming part of the permanent record in the absence of history being taught as it might be taught in the schools now. And I think consequently, there's maybe even a greater responsibility that we have to try to get it right, and to really do the homework that needs to be done. Would you agree with that?

Kasi Lemmons: I absolutely agree. Especially, things that we have to take very seriously, which is really all of it. But certainly with period [drama], I take it very seriously to try to present all of the things that you don't know about that period and distinguish it from the things you think you might know and to dispel some of the mythology, just dispel things I think are convenient for people to believe.

EZ: I know when I set out to make Glory, the only type of Civil War things that I had seen—there had been John Huston's movie (The Red Badge of Courage), but there had been really bad TV miniseries. And they had all traded on the cliché [or] began with the cliché, as if that's what they were trying to serve. And I just vowed that I would surround myself with people who knew so much more than I did and that included people like Shelby Foote, who was my consultant, and all the various reenactors who unto themselves were like living historians. And I would begin as if I knew nothing about it rather than assuming I was somehow adding to a mythology that everybody knew.

KL: On Harriet, I got to do about seven months of pure research; I read probably 10 books thoroughly, and really, really deeply invested. You know she had an interaction with the 54th (Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, dramatized in Glory), right?

EZ: In the new biography of Frederick Douglass (by David W. Blight), [the author] talks about it and that she was there. And it so moved me because it was known to be that important to so many people. You know Douglass gave his two sons to the regiment.

KL: It's not at all in my movie but it's just something interesting that I learned along the way, that she served Robert's last meal [that of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick in Glory]. That might be mythology.

EZ: There was an awareness even then by those people as to what their influence was to each other and their import to the cause. Douglass [was to President Lincoln] like [Martin Luther King Jr. was to President Johnson]. He was berating him constantly until he signed the Emancipation [Proclamation], and then he became his greatest advocate. At that point, Tubman's reputation was already preceding her.

KL: She was already quite famous. And all these abolitionists knew her. Robert knew her. She worked as a nurse in that regiment. It's really interesting how those lives intersected.

EZ: Yeah, and even the abolitionists and that whole utopian strain in American culture starting at Brook Farm (Mass.) that these people were connected to. And it's funny even now when you think of it politically how there could be this idealistic movement that finds its way through a culture and finds its expression with people like Harriet Tubman and these men of the 54th. It's very moving to me.

KL: And it was such a traumatic time, and you would hate to think of anything like that ever happening again. We were really fighting for the identity of the country and not knowing which way it would go. And I tried to express that anxiety from many different points of view. I mean, in some ways the hardest thing is really trying to understand other opposing points of view, and the anxiety of the past changing maybe forever. We're also really trying to understand the Southern mentality—the mentality of an oppressor who thinks that they're just doing business.

EZ: And a funny thing is, there was an event that took place during the time of Glory that I didn't include because it was just impossible to do it because the size was unwieldy, but there were draft riots the same week as the attack on Fort Wagner in New York City, where hundreds of black men were killed because people [in the North] did not want to be drafted to go fight for the end of slavery. You talk about the anxiety—the anxiety existed not just in the South. And it's important, I think, to try to capture that complexity at the same time and not make it seem like this monolithic belief in goodness.

KL: In some ways it's easy [to reduce history to] angels and devils in that time. I mean, you've got Quakers and these abolitionists. But at the same time, even Lincoln was a very conflicted character, who wasn't just an abolitionist by any stretch of the imagination.

Director Ed Zwick shores up his troops on location for Glory. (Photo: Courtesy of Ed Zwick)

War and Peace, and the Proverbial "Cast of Thousands"

KL: We really didn't deal that much with the Civil War, unfortunately. I would really love to do a sequel that deals with it. Harriet takes place between her run for freedom and the early Civil War, but it's really the 10 years preceding the war in some ways. It lives in the freedom and the quest for freedom and her going back when she was doing her most heroic acts prior to the Civil War.

EZ: But I think something we do share is the challenge of trying to give a period feel and how to accomplish that. And that has to do with language and behavior and props and sets—everything really conspires to either enhance that or fight against it.

KL: Or undermine it, absolutely. One thing I've always said is if everything is correct down to the props, you have a sense of relaxation. We had this tremendous prop master named Steve George who died after production of a massive stroke. I give [him] a lot of credit for just the authenticity of the way things looked. And then Paul Tazewell [did the] costumes, and they were just breathtaking. And Warren Alan Young, whom I've worked with before, did the production design.
But we had to make it look like a big-budget movie on a small budget and so we did our best. But part of it is having this relaxation. I have this theory that the audience can sense if something is wildly wrong even if they are not history buffs; you have a discomfort. If you get all that right, the audience just goes on the ride. I was trying to present things you don't know about Harriet Tubman [such as] how important the seamen were and these black captains and boatmen, how they helped her along, white captains as well. So, it's also deciding what you're going to do and how you're going to spend it. Like how many battle scenes were there in Glory?

EZ: There were a couple. There is one at the very beginning, which is Antietam, and then there is a skirmish later. And then, of course, there is the attack (on Fort Wagner in South Carolina). I think the individual relationships finally are much more important than the battle scenes. The battle scenes [are] all just to create this edifice on which the performance is based. And what you were saying about relaxation: It strikes me so personally because I feel it's like you want to create a default circumstance, which is the truth that if the costume feels right and what you're asking them to do and say feels right, it can feel like cheating, [but] the actors can find their way into this very profound sense of being. And especially in period, where they have to think about language and posture and attitude, which is different.

KL: Yes, it's really an interesting thing to be particular about, right?

EZ: There was a scene that I was directing and in the most generous way, Morgan Freeman said to me, "No. I would not dare look at an officer at that moment. It would be inappropriate." And I went, "Oh, God, of course." His inability to do that lent this whole scene a kind of authenticity that made it work. It's as simple a thing as that. And I have to say that it was a lot of the individual research that the actors had done, as well as what I had done reading oral histories, or even what they knew of their own families, [that] really gave (Glory) a whole additional layer that it otherwise wouldn't have had.

(Top) A photo of the actual Harriet Tubman; (Bottom) Cynthia Erivo in the title role of Harriet. (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

Location, Location, Location

KL: Another thing that really worked in our favor was shooting in Virginia; you had the history right there. [Even] the extras had it in their bones, in their DNA. The white people had that as well, playing white Southerners of that period. [They] would come to me and say, "You know my grandfather's soul rests right here." Everyone was talking about their families. It's almost as if they wanted to talk about it.

EZ: Oh, yeah. Well, you know Denzel (Washington) and I—Denzel just got the AFI Life Achievement Award—and we did this interview before he [received] it and he was talking about the whipping scene in Glory.

KL: I love that scene so much.

EZ: And the fact that this was a scene that we were shooting less than a mile from the caves where slaves had been held in the harbor in Savannah, where men had been put in chains, where men had been whipped, and the feeling of ghosts, of a presence around you all the time. Unbidden. Some force.

KL: In Virginia, which I was really grateful for, I didn't feel like they were trying to sweep it under the rug; they were actually dealing with it and willing to talk about it and wanted you to understand how deep it ran in their families.
We shot at the Berkeley Plantation (in Virginia), which is famous. It was where "Taps" was written. And being open to feeling the spirit of the South and this conflict is interesting because it is not an enjoyable experience all the time. It is a painful experience, and being open to the pain is extremely important to understanding it.

EZ: I can't help but think about having made 30 years ago what in some fundamental way was a patriotic movie, which is to say a movie about these men willing to give their lives for a cause, which when one looks back at it 30 years hence is by no means a struggle that is yet finished. And I wonder what it's like for you to be talking about it now in the midst of this political moment.

KL: Well, it's an amazing thing that we forget. And what I think is really important is to remember what you can accomplish with the sheer force of will. And especially Harriet, because she was a small woman who was very much motivated by her own drive for freedom and then motivated to go help others find it. And I think that it is so powerful right now, especially because we become a little paralyzed by the enormity of what we're up against, just as people living in this time.

EZ: Do you think you would have made the movie the same way had you made it 30 years ago? Or is the movie inevitably influenced by some awareness of the contemporary landscape?

KL: Well, certainly I thought a lot about decimation of families. It was really something that resonated with me, and it is the most haunting thing about slavery—and so much that we have not dealt with in terms of reconciling ourselves to this incredibly painful past. I think it's so painful to acknowledge it that we just don't. We like to look toward the better angels of our nature.

EZ: But this was the moment in which that was weaponized, the idea of the wound in the heart of an entire people. That this deliberate act [with] these unbelievably enduring consequences, that is what we're now doing again. It's almost as if they have taken a page from the cruelest and most shameful part of our past to now try to apply it again.

KL: Yeah and for the same purpose, which is to humiliate, disorient and demoralize—and glorify white supremacy, unfortunately. And when you really are faced with breaking up families, history is not going to look kindly at us. And your film spoke of it so eloquently—the decimation and desecration and just harm to male bodies that was so much a part of slavery. But I really wanted to talk about the idea of being sold away from your family, and your children being sold away from their mothers, and sisters being sold away from each other, and how that felt, what that was like to grapple with.

EZ: I really hope that when people see your movie that they will, in fact, make that reference because it gives it a better chance in the popular culture and in the marketplace to seem relevant and not to be sort of resigned to some quaint, historical past.

KL: Yeah, I mean that's part of it.

(Top) Newly arrived conscripts for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in Glory; (Bottom) Real-life regiment commander Robert Gould Shaw. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Everett)

If Glory Were Made Today vs. 30 Years Ago

EZ: What I'd love to have done was to have an entire additional movie to talk about all those things that I was unable to include in the story that are equally interesting. But somehow you're obliged finally to serve a narrative and have some kind of narrative cohesion.
I think Frederick Douglass' central role in it would really have been wonderful to have explored, too. But finally you end up having to serve the central thing that you've set out to do and have to forgive yourself for not including those other things. I fought a very subtle but very important battle during the making of that movie because there was great pressure on me to tell the story of Robert Gould Shaw more centrally. And I ended up shooting two reels of his childhood on the farm and his training and his parents. [But] it became very clear to me the minute that I saw Denzel and Jihmi (Kennedy) and Andre (Braugher) and Morgan in that tent, that was the story.

KL: That's so interesting.

EZ: I saw myself inevitably leaning to it, writing more for it, giving over to it. And when I showed the studio the movie without those two reels, they were initially horrified. But I had the good sense to show it to them first in the midst of a preview where it did well. So they had no choice but to say, "OK, I guess that's the movie." I think today there would have never been that pressure. I think there would have been an absolute acceptance and an understanding that this was the central beating heart of the story.

KL: That is so interesting because I really wanted to thank you for that movie. It was a very revolutionary movie for me and for so many of us and for the time. It was a door opening. I think all of us felt it. First of all, this story is tremendously important. And then these characters, you know, an army of African American men, and there were so many roles and so many careers made by that movie. It was really an important movie for America, and particularly for African American actors and for the portrayal of history.

EZ: Well, that's a wonderful thing to hear. And I mean, obviously, I cannot wait to see Cynthia (Erivo as Harriet Tubman).

KL: A pet peeve of mine is the "fuzzification," I call it, of African American heroes, where we make them kind of cuddly and take all the edge off of them, you know what I mean?

EZ: Yeah.

KL: I wanted to give her an edge. Harriet was very warm and known for it, but she also was a tremendously fierce woman.

EZ: Well, in my particular case, once I had Denzel Washington sitting there and Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, there was very little chance of that becoming sentimental, because they have a ferocity all of their own. I remember feeling that they could hear a kind of music that I could only imagine. And sometimes the smartest thing you can do as a director is just get the hell out of the way and let that happen.

KL: You were talking about the scene with Denzel when he gets whipped; that was such an important scene because it really had to do with [the oppressors] trivializing pain and the strength created by pain.

EZ: Well, dealing with humiliation and strength, that's the battle to me.

KL: But, you know, that character was empowered. There was no question about it. You couldn't take him down with sticks and stones and whips.

EZ: Is there any central moment akin to that in terms of this character's arc in Harriet? Is there anything you point to as some moment where the character is epitomized?

KL: I don't know—there are lots of moments. For me, Harriet's acknowledging that she wants to be free is a huge moment, you know; death or freedom. Harriet is saying, "I will be free or die." That's an incredible concept, and it is a very American concept, right?

EZ: It's a revolutionary war, and it's also the same thing in Glory. If you think about the Freedom Riders, white and black, I think they were doing the same thing.

KL: [Tubman] had this kind of deal that she felt she had formed with a higher power, that when God was ready to take her, she was ready to go. She was going to fight with her last ounce of strength [before] she was taken.
I read a lot of Southern journalism when I was writing Harriet, and the things that people would unabashedly say and write eloquently about why slavery was just, and why blacks were inferior. It almost would seem over the top that people said these things matter-of-factly. There is no more guilt in separating families than in separating piglets.

EZ: The funny thing about movies is that it's a lot like poetry, in which one thing stands in for a lot of other things. So, if you put that in once or twice, that is a symbolic notation of what was commonplace. Movies partake of an iconography, and one strong image dealt like that and dealt frankly and in your face can indeed resonate into a whole larger theme.

KL: I have a character that symbolizes the disunion and the Southern kind of anxiety of the old system crumbling and how do you deal with that. I think it's still something we're struggling against after 150 years, which is amazing, right? My point of view is very different as an African American woman than a lot of people, and a lot of people in the South. And though I was for the most part filming with very gracious and generous people, you still felt that there were people there who wanted no part of us shooting a Harriet Tubman movie.

EZ: I remember when I was making Blood Diamond and I was in South Africa and Mozambique. It was one movie when we were shooting it in South Africa and a different movie when we were shooting it in Mozambique, because Mozambique had been a free place for 30 years or more and South Africa had gotten rid of apartheid but not gotten rid of a coal culture that you could still feel in so many different interactions all around you. That's what you're describing it seems to me.

KL: It's funny, a British director once said years ago, "The South is like Europe." The past oppresses the present but it's very integrated with it. So, you're looking at both at the same time. The past is right there, and you can't ignore it.

EZ: There's that great [Faulkner quotation]: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."


Two prominent directors from shared experience discuss craft, approach, collaboration and the state of the business, with DGA Quarterly as a fly on the wall.
More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly is the Conversations issue, featuring discussions about filmmaking history and craft between directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Pamela Fryman and Mark Cendrowski, Kasi Lemmons and Ed Zwick and Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde.